Thursday, November 7, 2013

“Ulward’s Retreat” by Jack Vance

This story originally appeared in Galaxy in 1958 as “Ullward’s Retreat.”  It is in my copy of The Best of Jack Vance (1976), but I read it today in a library copy of Wild Thyme, Green Magic (2009) because I believe the 2009 publication’s text is closer to what the author intended.  The 2009 version has only a single “l” in “Ulward,” for example, which may or may not have a significance that is currently beyond my understanding.

In the 1976 intro to the story Vance says he is particularly proud of "Ullward's Retreat." This is not a detective story or an adventure story, but, as Vance says, it is about “human captiousness and human vanity.”

In the future, Earth is terribly overcrowded, with people living in tiny apartments and obsessed with privacy and space.  People have to eat algae and synthetic foods, get put on a waiting list if they want to have children (the title character says that he is “thirty-seven billion down on the list”) and a girl in the story who acts like a teenager is revealed to be 38 years old, but taking drugs to prevent sexual maturity.

Ulward is rich, and so is able to afford an apartment with a large attached room, half an acre, full of cunning machines that create the illusion that the door to the room in fact leads out to a bucolic countryside.  Ulward even has a garden in this room with real flowers and a real tree.  A tree is such a rarity in this modern world that the 38 year old girl treasures a single leaf from it that she receives as a gift.

Ulward is wealthy enough that when he learns that an interstellar explorer has discovered an uninhabited Earth-like planet and purchased the rights to it for his own use, Ulward is able rent out half a continent, a million square miles, on the planet and make his home there.

Ulward has his friends come visit him, but even though the Earthlings have longed for privacy and space all their lives, now that they have it they are dissatisfied.  Natural food makes them sick.  Real life rocks are not as picturesque as the illusionary rocks they are accustomed to seeing in video screens.  The ocean is too scary to swim in.  Even worse, all of Ulward’s friends are disappointed that Ulward does not own the entire planet, and as soon as possible they trespass on the property of the other wealthy tenant of the planet, breaking the contract Ulward made with him and causing Ulward no end of trouble.  So, after only a few days of life in what they would have thought a paradise a month ago, Ulward and his friends eagerly return to the crowded Earth.  

This is a solid philosophical story with some laughs, but I have to admit that I probably find the Jack Vance stories about people facing dreadful dangers and committing unspeakable crimes more entertaining.

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